Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra coupled two works Shostakovich initially withdrew: “Fear and Repression” could not be more apt for a composer terrified by the consequences of official condemnation.
Completed in 1948, the First Violin Concerto was premiered by dedicatee David Oistrakh in 1955. James Ehnes took the honours here, admirably meeting its relentless demands, soloist, conductor and orchestra unequivocal in their collective vision. Oistrakh described the opening ‘Nocturne’ as “a suppression of feelings”; from Ehnes its sinuous contours and claustrophobia unfolded with a veiled yet transparent beauty. That’s not to suggest a limited dynamic range, as the manic ‘Scherzo’ made clear in playing of wild abandon, flawless intonation and impeccable technique, the Philharmonia fully responsive to Ashkenazy’s direction. To the ‘Passacaglia’ Ehnes brought purity and sweetness, with wonderfully oak-aged tone in the lower register; and following an intensely-wrought ‘Cadenza’, the ‘Burlesque’ hurtled by. As a parting and quietly devotional gift Ehnes offered the Andante of J. S. Bach’s A-minor Sonata (BWV1003).
The Fourth Symphony (1936, held-back for twenty-five years) has an uncompromisingly pessimistic outlook that overrides false smiles and the Finale’s half-hearted optimism. From the shrilly insistent opening through to the tragic close, Ashkenazy was a compelling guide and, apart from a couple of longueurs in the outer movements, he had complete command of what can be an unwieldy structure, if music of shattering power and striking colouration. There was playing of vivid detail and character and any mishap in the fugato was quickly forgotten by two timpanists pounding away as if the World was about to end. Brilliant features also spiced the second movement – demonic woodwinds, apocalyptic horns and sardonic percussion, the latter’s toyshop sparkle at once comic and menacing. Ashkenazy shaped the Finale’s bleak journey to apparent if world-weary triumph, but with any hopeful prospects crumbling to ice-cold violins and chilling celesta – devastation complete. This performance left in no doubt the stature of Symphony 4.